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March 18, 2009
Column #1,438
How to Save the Most Distressed Marriages
By Mike McManus

DETROIT - Ten years ago Rita was so disgusted with Tony that she filed for divorce.  Then she witnessed the impact her decision had on her daughters - who were devastated.

About that time she heard of a weekend retreat called Retrouvaille (French for Rediscovery). She and Tony attended the Christian peer ministry created to save marriages.  "We did not know what to expect," she recently told couples and clergy in Macomb County, a Detroit suburb.

"As the weekend unfolded, the presenting couples shared personal experiences about problems they once had in their marriages, and how they were overcome."

       Tony added, "We found we were not alone in having a struggling marriage.  We began to see hope. The couples were so honest and caring, it was good for all of us."

       They not only saved their marriage, but were also inspired to become a presenting couple. "It was an opportunity to continue healing our own marriage, and to help save the marriages of other couples. Our personal struggle involved a great deal of forgiveness and love.  We learned that love is a decision, and not a feeling," Rita asserted.

       "Retrouvaille embraces all hurting couples, regardless of faith," Tony exclaimed. He noted that there were 34,500 divorces in Michigan in 2007, and only 59,000 marriages, a divorce rate of 60 percent - the most divorce-prone state in the Midwest.

       However, 4,200 couples on the edge of divorce have attended Detroit's Retrouvaille.  Result?  "Eighty percent are still together," proudly proclaimed Mark Squier, who organized Retrouvaille locally with his wife, Betty in 1981. 

       "How do you know that?" I asked.

       "In the first ten years, volunteers called up the couples who attended and asked how they were doing. Eight out of ten were still together."

       Across the country, more than 75,000 couples have attended.  The weekend begins Friday night with couples glumly sitting with arms folded across their chests, as if to say, "I am here but I am not expecting anything."

       First, they hear presenting couples tell a story about the recovery of their marriage. That is exciting.  They are walking parables of hope.

       Next, they are asked to write to their spouse for ten minutes on a topic, such as "What do I have difficulty talking to you about?  And how does that make me feel?"  Ten minutes is enough time to say what is on their heart with enough detail and examples to get the attention of a spouse. They then return to their motel rooms, read what each other has written, and talk. That part of what happens is private. After talking for 10-15 minutes, they hear a knock on their door, as a signal it is time to hear another talk by the presenters.

       By Sunday afternoon, most couples arms are around each other, in the joy of a resurrected marriage!  They return for six half-day sessions over the next couple of months, and get to know other Retrouvaille couples, who can be a strong network of encouragers. (To learn more from couples in your state, call 800 470-2230.)

       The question is, how can a similar process be sparked to reach hundreds of thousands of marriages in crisis?  As I heard Tony and Rita, and later heard Mark and Betty tell how they rebuilt a marriage after adultery, I had an idea, and proposed it to Mark and Betty:

       "Just in the Detroit area, you have 3,000 couples who have saved their marriage.  Why not train those couples to tell their stories of recovery to a couple suffering from a similar crisis? Right now, they are just sitting in pews, not being of help to others.  Yet they know God helped them heal their marriage. Don't you think they'd be willing to meet with another couple privately, to say, "We can't tell you what to do, but here is how we restored hope in our marriage."

       Mark and Betty have had trouble recruiting couples like Tony and Rita to lead Retrouvaille weekends, but a private meeting with another couple would not be so demanding.

       "I think many couples - perhaps a quarter of them - would be willing to do this," Mark replied. "This would be less intense, less threatening that speaking before a whole group.  I think it makes sense to try."

       Betty added, "It could help couples recognize that they have hope for a far better marriage and a better family life, a better future."

       Every church has couples who have been on the brink of divorce and stepped back. They need to be recruited, trained to tell their stories, and relish the resurrected marriages.

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